7 min read • Jan 08, 2021
Tyler J. Rouse is a freelance tech writer from North Carolina. Her favorite topics to cover in tech are Microsoft 365 updates and business process automation. Tyler enjoys reading, writing fiction, and playing RPGs on her PlayStation 4 console.
With 3.8 billion users on mobile devices in 2021, it's increasingly important that products, services, and data suit the needs of those with sensory disabilities.
Our tech devices have innovated so much over the last decade that there isn’t much difference between laptops and smartphones. Many people use their mobile phones to shop, chat, work, and entertain themselves. According to Statista, an estimated 3.8 billion people will be using smartphones by 2021. Because of this shift, products and services must be accessible to all people.
Sixty-one million Americans live with at least one form of disability, making the need for accessibility within the digital presence of technology companies vital to long-lasting revenue streams. This task is not solely up to developers and user experience designers. C-level executives have a responsibility to make their technology more accessible to customers and prospects.
Tech companies like IBM and SAS have made strides to create the role of CAO (Chief Accessibility Officer) within their company. The Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO) should be proactive in implementing measures that create accessibility for as many people as possible. Microsoft has made the most noticeable progress recently with their Accessibility Evolution Model. This model aims to create a more inclusive environment both within the confines of their business and outwardly in the products and innovations they develop. At companies who don’t have a CAO or even an accessibility department, this job should fall to the Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Technology Officer. If a company is not equipped to manage accessibility efforts, third-party vendors, and consultants can be a viable option.
There are a few sets of standard guidelines that web developers and user experience professionals can adhere to, but the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most prevalent. Since its inception, WCAG 2.1 aims to make web content on the aforementioned electronic devices more accessible for disabilities like blindness or low vision, deafness or hearing loss, and photosensitivity (among others). To complement these guidelines are two types of methods to evaluate whether accessibility protocols are on par: Accessibility Conforming Tests (ACT) and Evaluation and Report Language (EARL).
But this isn’t for your web developers, quality assurance testers, or UX/UI designers. Instead, it’s for those in an organization focused solely on accessibility evaluation methodologies and testing tools.
An evaluation performed by the non-profit WebAIM from February 2019 to February 2020 showed that about 97.8% of the top one million homepages tested fail accessibility tests. Since meeting compliance standards is attainable, this failure rate is exceptionally high.
The first principle of WCAG 2.1, and arguably the most important, addresses whether the user experience and information displayed through a platform or product is easily perceivable. For example, many leading tech companies employ demo videos to show how their products work. Video is both a value add for customers and a valuable marketing tool to drive leads. Utilizing video in an accessible way means asking critical questions:
Pay specific attention to certain details of the user experience. Developers should call text alternatives for ensuring security like CAPTCHA into question. For people with vision impairment, which accounts for about 80% of digital accessibility issues, choosing motorcycle pictures on a grid can be challenging. Navigating an organization’s website that opted for a lemon-yellow font over a white background is equally as challenging.
The second principle within WCAG 2.1 covers whether a site is operable. The most crucial component is all about whether a keyboard or alternative input modality is available for use when surfing your site. These sensory aids are beneficial for people with zero to low vision and those who experience hand tremors. Other accessibility requirements on the operable checklist include whether there’s enough time to take in the page’s information. If there are timed activities on a site, will the user lose their data during a bout of inactivity? Will they have to re-authenticate to get back to where they left off if a session is interrupted? Removing these timed activities mitigates frustration for differently-abled people, making their user experience more pleasant.
The third principle that may give tech companies a challenge is understandability. A running joke when you move around in the tech industry is that you’ll need to learn abbreviations and acronyms all over again because they’re usually unique at each company. Ensure your content is readable and accessible for all levels of people coming to your website, whether for the first or the fifth time. Understandability also means that your content’s level of difficulty, especially blog posts, should be deviated. Adding reading time to lengthy posts is one way to do this. For content written by a top engineer, informing readers of the difficulty level can help meet understandability requirements.
The last principle to achieve WCAG 2.1 compliance is robustness or compatibility. This final accessibility criterion is vital for assistive technologies’ (AT) ability to uniformly and accurately put content together from your site. Some examples of assistive technology available are optical character recognition (OCR) software, instant messaging, magnification software, screen readers, voice-powered interactive webpages, and machine learning. A lot of these are geared towards the auditory senses. That’s because 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss.
Ensuring assistive tech can aggregate information from all data points to make the content read properly is key to achieving robustness. These technologies need to be tested against the capability of the site.
There are quite a few options if you’re looking to consult subject matter experts within the accessibility space. UsableNet Inc. helps companies achieve and maintain WCAG 2.0 & 2.1 compliance in three phases and can perform web accessibility audits and provide monthly screen reading QA testers. They also offer user testing within the disabled community. Like UsableNet, Fable Tech Labs also sources actual accessibility experts to test your products using assistive technology like screen readers, magnifiers, and alternative navigator tools. WebAIM is a non-profit organization that acts as a one-stop-shop for accessibility needs. Organizations can receive an evaluation report about their current accessibility score with their services, then consult with them for accessibility training and further assistance.
Evaluating protocols in-house, evaluation tool developers - or anyone tasked with writing, sharing, and implementing accessibility protocols into a product - can use the ACT and EARL method. ACT is the backbone of the conformance testing, while EARL makes sure the test results show up objectively. They work hand in hand.
Companies should use a top-down approach to accessibility by forming an accessibility task force or creating jobs centered around it. As an SMB, the most cost-efficient route may be to start the task force and hire a third-party vendor to evaluate products and services. In an enterprise organization, the shift should be organizational, prompting the inclusion of a CAO or VP of Accessibility. As the tech industry moves closer to the ideal of diversity and inclusion, accessibility cannot be an afterthought. There must be a continued conversation around supporting users with disabilities so that inclusivity becomes a priority for every business model and every product.
By Tyler Rouse
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